Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Actual

If I believe everything written about Saul Bellow’s The Actual, then at 36, I’m far too young to have taken on this book. Fortunately however, at 36 I’m fairly certain that I’ve already survived two or three midlife crises. Regretting, second guessing and inventorying what’s left of the future are an old man’s occupation, yet I feel somewhat adept at these things, as though I’ve accrued into them via dog years. I was ready for The Actual, and I am grateful for it.

In The Actual, Harry Trellman, an accomplished businessman and world traveler, has returned to his hometown Chicago. Early in this novella, he explains that he has returned for some unfinished emotional business: "A man's road back to himself is a return from his spiritual exile, for that is what a personal history amounts to - exile."

That unfinished business is Amy Wustrin, the girl he loved four decades earlier. As the years unfolded, Harry never married and all the while Amy was encapsulated in an alternative universe of his longing. Within this separate reality, she would grow older as he did, and thus she was always with him although he was most often on the other side of the globe. Harry explains that distance " really a formality. The mind takes no real notice of it."

But in The Actual, he is reunited with her. We learn that Amy is a widow surviving a letch of a husband (and a former friend of Harry's) who divorced her some years before his death. Meanwhile, Harry has befriended a zillionaire who has also engaged Amy for her interior decorating services.

A tripartite business arrangement unfolds and the zillionaire channels Harry towards Amy at a point where she is in need of Harry's advice. Harry must take stock of whatever years he and Amy have left and finally do something. Will Harry break from the analytical and move towards the emotional, to a place where he can communicate his love to Amy? Will he finally free her from the confines of his imaged Alternative Amy and become for him the Actual Amy?

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